The following is from Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel, Honey from the Lion. Null’s fiction appears in American Short Fiction, Ecotone, the Oxford American, Ploughshares, The PEN /O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Mystery Stories. A native of West Virginia, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he is currently the writing coordinator.
By the hard time of 1904, that moment of sedition and botched rebellion, Cur Greathouse had worked four years in the Blackpine camps of Helena, West Virginia. Some called them seasons, but the wolves worked year-round, through hail and flood, illness and mood. His cradle was seventy miles to the south, a place called the Three Forks of the Cheat, a headwater braid of blue on maps. The family’s land was lost in a snarl of mountains, the fountain-head of seven strong rivers. Because of a botched survey, his father, Old Neil, thought they lived in northern Augusta County, and would die thinking that, but his land was actually an obscure jog of Tuscarora, nearly on top of the county line.
They had lived in the backcountry of Virginia so long it had outlasted their memory of any other place. Not even the dimmest notions of cities, seaports, or other ways of living.
Cur’s mother called him Coleman after her maiden name. His twin brother, older by a hundred breaths, was called Jesse, though they weren’t the kind to make the naming courthouse official. The frontispiece of the family King James, with its struck-through dates and inventive spellings, was the only documentation that held truck. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow. The flood of 1884 turned every birth, death, marriage, and land deal in the county courthouse to foursquare stacks of mold.
Coleman Greathouse remembered little of his mother but a wan smiling face, pale as a banjo head, and her singing of ballads of tedious length, fifteen or twenty verses, recalled with the precision of memory only the truly illiterate can master. Old Neil bothered her to death, it was said. Finally, a rattling surrey took her to a sanatorium in Anthem. The wheels tore brown plumes of dust from the road. She waved a handkerchief colored like a battle flag. A week later, she shed this world and left Old Neil with two boys at an age when they could be reasonably expected to fetch water without pitching headlong into the mossy oblivion of a well, or crack a pail of walnuts without mashing their fingers too badly. Addled by a dead wife and slim harvest, Old Neil let the boys raise themselves. And they did, learning to pry open cupboards, one standing on the back of another. Once, in his drunkenness, Old Neil considered aloud cutting thin slices into their cheeks, so when they cried, the salt of their own tears would sting them silent—a practice falsely ascribed to the Delawares. His friends laughed nervously. How could anyone be so kind to his friends and treat his blood so rough? Cur would never understand. Old Neil never struck them, comforted them, or raised his voice. When they cried for food, he said, “Go to find it. You got hands.”
Their hands grew callused and sandblasted like those of bricklayers, and they lived in the mountain’s blue shade, the clouds casting a moody play of light and shadow on the crags. In the day’s last tatter of sun, Old Neil pointed out a granite gash on the green mountain, a jagged fissure of rock where bears lived. A talus of sandstone boulders gleamed phosphor-white, tossed there by a frivolous hand. Wind roared and birds kited in place as though hung with wire. Mountains argued the skyline, extremes of earth and sky notched from the land by God’s own hatchet, which had laid it open for the shallow presence of man. It was not strange; it was all they knew. They breathed in the smell of clean rot from the world.
At age nine, Coleman and Jesse could snap the head off a chicken with a swift staccato crack, the scrawny bodies dancing from their hands. They ran traps, mended their clothes, and loaded the sixteen-gauge to keep foxes out of the yard.
Old Neil’s beard grew forked and shaggy. Fieldwork whittled him to the quick. Nothing comforted but hours at the plow and a night of talk. The cabin gathered all rakehells and bad husbands, the place to shuffle and cut. If they couldn’t find alcohol at Ray Hooper’s or the head of Laurel Run, they hunkered in the willow-shade at Old Neil’s till someone dug a bottle out of the ground or fished it from under the porch with a hoe to avoid copperheads.
While Old Neil’s friends sat about swapping knives and carving at boot-soles, they watched the twins roll in the dirt with a pack of Plotts. All of them tussled for a bone-hard cob. Dusty and dark as wet buckskin, the boys were hard to tell from the brindled hounds, except Coleman’s and Jesse’s hides lacked the slaty-blue swirls of the German-true Plott lineage. It was noted that them two was being raised no better than common curs.
“Two curs!” Old Neil said. “Will they tree a bear? Will they bay?”
His brother Basil said, “I bet neither of them could piss their Christian names in the snow. It’s a awful thing. Where do they sleep? In a pile? In the crib?”
Old Neil laughed on it, but then grew sullen. The thought threw chills of hilarity up his spine. He turned to the dusky boys and said, “It’s best you learn to cipher.”
They ignored him. He chewed the lining of his cheek. Since his wife’s death he’d spent much time drunk, even while coaxing corn and pumpkins from the earth. Among friends, he was free with hand tools and tobacco. Men loved Old Neil for his salt, and his three sisters-in-law hated him with the fury that is like love. Pushing for temperance, they named him as an example. Children felt drawn to him, though he liked to play at stealing the ears and noses off their heads.
While the thoughts of men and women meant little to Old Neil, he feared the judgment of a wrathful God who demanded certain things of fathers.
“You need to get married,” said brother Basil. “You being a landowner and all. Them children are so far gone you need a hard-shell woman to fix them.”
Another man shrieked and rolled off the porch, crying, “You got to get harnessed, Old Neil! Let her crack that whip. Ker-pop! Ker-pop!”
Old Neil said, “A hard-shell woman, she’d put me on the cooling board.”
“Got to be careful with boys. They cut your neck, drink your heart’s blood like wine.”
“I don’t even know where to find a right wife. I tripped over the last one.”
Basil said, “The meetinghouse.”
“Marriage is a good thing,” a friend named Jim Boggs said, putting away his knife, which he’d been using delicately to tease at a bad tooth. “A covenant. I got a cousin if you’re interested. Rimfire’s girl. She’s of age.”
“Rimfire? That sot?”
“Mean your future daddy?”
“I am five years older than him!”
Jim Boggs shrugged. “I’ve only so many cousins, Cornelius.”
Nodding, the men rested on their haunches, drawing fire from clay pipes, the molten coals of tobacco crackling in their bowls. Then a bluetick nipped Jesse’s ear with an audible click. The boy socked it on the muzzle. The hound yelped horribly and plowed under Old Neil’s ladder-back chair, tipping him onto the porch. Six hounds rushed to the porch, kicking up husbands and cinders, a whirlwind of skittering nails. Everyone evacuated. Jesse wrestled a hound, and Old Neil pulled him back by the scruff of his neck. He made Jesse open his mouth and found a quarter-sized piece of hound’s ear inside, like a bloody piece of felt. He turned to Jim Boggs, who said, “I’ll lend you a suit.”
* * * *
The suit had to be let out in the shoulders, and Boggs’s cousin Sarah turned out to be in a little trouble, which helped broker an easy deal. Old Neil’s newly shaven cheeks were flat, dough-colored, and abashed from years without sun, but beard-growth covered them back soon enough. The Boggs men carried her trunk full of belongings to the meager cabin—nothing more than rough-cut chestnut chinked with mud, flax growing from the soft rotten places in the wood. They fled the place as soon as they could, before the shock wore off and she began to cry. The daughter was born a scant five months after Sarah set eyes on the shaven and funeral-suited Old Neil Greathouse for the very first time.
The newborn child, Ivy, tugged at his beard and cooed and made it all right. “There’s miracles happen every day,” Old Neil said, cutting back and forth to see if anyone would challenge him with a clever, accusing grin. “Read up on your Isaac and Rebecca.”
“You mean Abraham and Sarah.”
“Miracles is miracles,” said Old Neil.
He was thirty-eight, Sarah fifteen. She was striking, with delicate songbird bones and hair like lampblack. Her laughter rattled the dusty house, riled dogs, and made the boys secretly love her. So they made a show of hating her, unnerved by the tintype gaze of their dead mother on the mantel. Sarah was five years older than the two curs she tried to cure with a belt, chunks of soap, and the dog-eared King James that doubled as their schoolbook. They fought her fist and skull until Jesse was dragged off by the Elk River. Jesse liked to wade out far, way up to his bellybutton, and cast his crawdad to the rocky shores and the big bass sulking there. Far away, the family watched the sandbar evaporate beneath him. They went thrashing through the water, shouting for Jesse to drop the pole and swim. The bobbing head vanished in a riot of foam. Coleman felt his father pulling him ashore by the belt.
Sarah had to sit on Coleman to keep him from jumping in the water, black and deep, to follow his brother down. He quit struggling but wailed in a horrible way, as though they were carving off the soles of his feet with a bright knife. Sarah clutched him until he quit. Coleman broke the blood vessels in his face with weeping. For the rest of her life, Sarah nursed a terrible guilt because she had secretly despised wild Jesse and wished a humbling on him, the bite of a horse or a copperhead. “We’ll find your brother,” she said, kissing Coleman. “We’ll find him.”
And when they did, they buried him.
* * * *
There were no longer Curs, only Cur. He lost heart. He took to wearing shoes and scratching his alphabet and verses forward and backward in the dirt with a pointed stick. He would inherit the farm with no squabbling, become a landowner. To Old Neil’s bitter relief.
In the county seat, people assumed Cur and Sarah were brother and sister, especially when they held hands to balance while crossing the long planks that forded mud streets. Cur and Sarah would blush but never had the nerve to straighten matters out. Old Neil would laugh and laugh, loving to make other men color by pulling the handsome girl onto his lap. He traded calves and bought her bolts of cloth, as well as a box of pumpkin-ball slugs and a keg of salt for himself. In a good mood, he’d buy his daughter an ice cream and dab at the nape of her neck with a cold drop on his thumb. She squealed and wormed.
Sarah gave Old Neil four offspring in six years, and his land fed them, one hundred and five acres of corn and pasture, uncut woods and patchwork crops. A mild bull was bought for stud. Late nights the family had in lambing season, easing quivering bundles into this world. Marked with swallow-cut notches in the right ear, hogs roamed promiscuously about the balds until it was time to hang them bleeding over pans, stoke cauldrons, singe the hair. Cur penned the dogs to keep them off the meat. After, they sat in a circle, eating salty brains and eggs off tin plates. While forking hay into the mow, Old Neil danced off a falling ladder and snapped his ankle. A hard year. He drank in bed, refusing to let his body heal. After he passed out and soiled himself, Cur had to strip him of his clothes and clean him.
Cur could have hated Sarah’s children, but he didn’t. The family grew close, and Cur grew up. He began to touch Sarah’s arm or her back while easing around her. There were worse lives to be had. In the life of their marriage, Sarah and Old Neil lost only three children before adulthood, in an age when measles brought blindness, and whooping cough played its cruel parlor trick of drowning you in your own lung. When Old Neil grabbed young Daphne’s foot in play and found mumps blooming on the sole, he knew. He went to his shop and chiseled the name into a chock of feldspar granite a week before she died. He did it late at night. Cur listened to metal strike rock and knew what the tapping was.
One year the corn failed and showed them how tenuous their lives really were. It was a marginal living on poor ground and couldn’t have gone on forever. They hurried buckwheat into the field and grew sick of it before winter was out. All Cur’s life, the taste of it would give him nausea. Even its pollen made him cough. Water would run from his eyes. It would be regular fare in camp.
Cur could have it all, the land shaped like a hatchet head, bordering a good trout stream and a ragged crosshatch of hogbacks to the north. His half brothers would scatter to the iron furnaces and brickyards, saltworks and tanneries; lose fingers and wives; unionize themselves, only to be shot and beaten by the National Guard; join the National Guard; turn silly chartreuse and indigo with vat dyes; be laughed out of courtrooms; end their days staggering jake-legged on buckled floors. Their history would be read nowhere but on the police blotter, the census, the walls of donegans. Never to own a handful of earth.
Cur noticed Sarah watching him as he sat on the porch rail, sharpening his knife on an oiled stone. Sleek, grating sounds. She smiled. The knife slipped, and a band of red encircled his thumb. Startled, Sarah walked over and lifted the thumb to her mouth. She sucked the wound clean, and Cur felt no pain. He was seventeen. She gave back his thumb and walked inside. Light-headed, he fixed his gaze to the east, to a hawk listlessly riding the thermals. He began to bleed again.
* * * *
Old Neil was in the barn looking for the posthole digger—had he lent it out to someone? He’d given it to half the county, it seemed. The tools always came back rustier, nicked and dull as any kitchen blade. He wished he had more German in him; they wouldn’t lend out a pin. He looked to the ceiling, at the sound of mice scuttling in the mow, as if glancing up would help him listen. Then a thump. Irregular seams of sunlight shone through the boards.
This time Sarah had her hand over Cur’s mouth. It was absurd they were never caught. It made it seem these lives were meant to be. Her other hand found the tuck behind his knee. A funny part of the body he would never again ignore.
Children poured into the barn, laughing and dancing about Old Neil. Now everyone looked for the tool—Old Neil made it a game, promising a penny. Cur was surprised to feel Sarah smiling into his shoulder. The tool was found. The barn emptied. The falls of Old Neil’s heavy boots led them away. Sarah touched Cur’s neck to catch the wild pulse, to cup it like a beating moth. She pressed her eyes shut. With that motion and a laugh, she stitched herself into his being.
* * * *
They found places to go: the orchard’s soft grass, a depression by the river. This time, a scallop of earth where a tree had fallen, uprooting itself, roots clutching stone and secret earth. It had filled in with a bed of leaves as soft as silt. She said she could lie here forever. She wished she had a cool drink of water. That would make it a perfect day. Sarah had never thought she would live this way again—the sweet affair that had produced Ivy was with a traveling farrier, who left the unborn child a puckish nose that Sarah could remember him by.
Cur gathered her hair in one fat twist, then spread it like sheaves. She listened to Cur tell stories of sly Jesse, of Old Neil before she knew the man, the habits of animals in the woods and the river, weeklong hunting trips. He had never talked so much before. He gave his opinions on the world and the family, while she absently traced his bones, his veins. He went on until hoarse in the throat. He wasn’t used to it. Indeed he had the reputation of being bashful. Most couldn’t, if pressed, recall the sound of his voice. He could talk like this away from his father, unspooling sentence after sentence—but when he was around Old Neil, he was struck dumb, living in that warm shadow. Old Neil had no money, no airs, no special ability with gun or fiddle or dancing legs, but everyone listened to him, gathered at his feet. Cur and Sarah were just like anyone else to him. They were prisoners together. Cur longed to assert himself. He put her hair back together again. They ought be going.
“I forgot the blanket,” she said and went running back when they were done, bounding off like a girl. “I’ll bring it next time.”
They took care not to return to the cabin at the same time. Nor did they talk there—did anyone notice? Leaning on his crutch, still nursing that black ankle, Old Neil never asked where Cur had been. He was of the mind that people should wander and be left to their wanderings unquestioned. Especially the young. Later he would change his mind and be jealous of everyone’s presence, a seething sun.
Cur picked up a thread of sound—a child weeping. He ran. The others held Ivy, trying to calm her, the children talking all at once. The stove door hung open, coals blazing. Old Neil was trying to pry open Ivy’s fingers when Cur and Sarah stepped in. Old Neil cried, “My God, girl, what were you doing?” He took Ivy on his lap and held her tight—it seemed he would suffocate her. Ivy had burned her fat little hand. It looked worse than it was, but it looked awful. Tears gathered in Old Neil’s eyes. No one had ever seen that before. The children slunk away. Sarah began to shout at Ivy. Old Neil looked at Sarah blankly. He finally asked, “Would you kindly shut up?” and took Ivy away. He made the girl drive her hand into lard and wrapped it in felt.
In their hearts, Sarah and Cur blamed the girl for being stupid—that’s how far gone they were, cruel in a way that frightened Cur when he thought back on those years.
The world wasn’t real. They only moved through it, drugged, no consequence to word or action—was the afterlife like this? Tooth marks broke on Cur’s skin, red sickles, purple dips. He studied them when he was alone. He slept well. The earth was holy. Even the hammer was light in his hand, found the sweet spot on every nail. But they spoke of other worlds. Would they ever have met in Anthem on a crowded market day? Would God—like all sinners they spoke often of God—have crossed their paths? In harsh moments alone, Cur wondered if Sarah would have chosen his brother instead. Yes, he told himself, I’m jealous of a drowned child. Even happy that I’m here and not him. When Cur told Sarah this, she answered with a shocked silence. Then said, “Don’t ever say it again.”
When Old Neil mentioned that Jesse had had the stronger character of the two brothers, Sarah lit up with a fury that shocked him. And later it did not.
Curled naked together, Cur and Sarah spoke in ways neither had before. Perhaps no one had ever spoken this way. They were that isolated, that unknowing. They could read the Song of Songs, but that was the Bible, not real people. As far as they were concerned, their lives had no parallel. She asked, “What will I do if he’s about finding out?”
It troubled Cur that she didn’t say we. He told her so. She had no answer.
They couldn’t bring themselves to say his name; Old Neil was the sun, shining over all their lands. They didn’t hate him, they loved him fiercely, laughed at his jokes, and felt dizzy when Sarah asked, if something happened to Old Neil someday, could they move to a place where no one knew their names? What could be done about the children?
A voice called Cur from the field. He cussed blue words. Before he left, Sarah plucked a stray dead leaf from his hair, smoothed his shirt, paying him a care he did not know.
* * * *
March came, when does’ bellies are slung low with unborn fawns. In this season, Old Neil caught Sarah and the boy tangled up in the back field. Her way of the last year, so cool to the touch, made sense in the cruelest way. Old Neil left in silence. It took him a while, still nursing his leg, still on the crutch. Cur pulled away from Sarah and dressed. He walked toward home, he didn’t know why. Sarah didn’t try to stop him. She sat there, the dress bunched in her lap, her breasts bare. Through it all, none of them spoke.
Not ten yards from the cabin, Cur saw his father hobbling out the front door, a crutch in one hand and the shotgun in the other. Old Neil leveled over the rail.
Cur buckled and fell. He heard nothing. While his father fumbled a fresh shell into the breech, he managed to get to the woods. He didn’t remember standing back up.
Four miles. The crutch had skewed Old Neil’s aim and saved his son. In short order, two pellets of buckshot turned Cur’s entire arm grisly yellow-jacket colors. If he held the limb just so, he found he could trot. The last mile was delirium. He sweated by the pint. Cur’s aunt on Arches Fork made him drink liquor, scalded a knitting needle, and shoved it into the blue-red smirk of a wound, twisting it like a corkscrew. He bit through the hickory branch. A double-aught pellet of lead jumped out. Knees shaking, he pissed down his leg.
Frowning, Uncle Basil said, “Hold on, she ain’t got to number two yet.”
“You know what the Book says. Sow ice, reap wind,” said tearful Aunt Harmony.
They knew. They had suspected it all, of course—this shamed him. “You awful bitch!” he cried. His aunt laughed nervously and bored again into his arm. She gave up. It was buried too deep. So relieved it hadn’t touched bone, she cleansed the wound, patched it with terry cloth, and told him to tend it with alcohol when he could. That’s when he understood they didn’t mean to shelter him. He began to cry.
“Not drinking it, I mean,” his uncle told him. “Rub it in there. Like a snakebite. Plug it with whiskey and clean mud if you got nothing else. Spiderwebs.” Uncle Basil babbled on, as he did when crying. He slipped three dollars folding money and a note into Cur’s jacket pocket, saying, “I’d do you better, but I can’t. Now get. He’ll be here next.”
The flesh mended with time, capped with a pair of pinched white stars where the hair would never grow. The uncle’s dollars were faded, thin, worried with age.
Old Neil blacked Cur’s name out of the family Bible and beat the name out of his wife. No land was Cur’s. The other sons walked boundary lines, savoring.
Near the end of her life, Sarah would walk to the pasture, lean against a lone tree, and stand there for hours, saying nothing.
From HONEY FROM THE LION. Used with permission of Lookout Books. Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Neill Null.